The U.S. military thinks that the future of defending against incoming nuclear missiles could be giant lasers floating in space.
The military is developing sensors that could combat incredibly fast nuclear missiles and target them with lasers when they’re most vulnerable, but that can only work from space. The technology to zap missiles with space lasers could be online as soon as 2021.
“It’s so important that we make this broader shift from a terrestrial-based system to a system that primarily plays from space in the next couple of years,” Richard Matlock, executive for advanced technology at the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said in a statement.
Matlock argues that the U.S. needs a more layered system to detect potential nuclear first strikes against the country, and that the best place to do this from is space. Doing so would allow the U.S. to target incoming nuclear missiles seconds after launch when they are in the much more vulnerable boost phase.
“The architectures consisted largely of terrestrial sensors deployed on land, deployed on our ships, and interceptors also deployed in silos, in trucks, and in ships,” Matlock continued. “As we examine the impact of the evolving, more maneuverable, more complex threat on this, we begin to see gaps emerging in the future to our system, which is primarily based on our lack of persistent global sensor coverage.”
MDA plans to conduct its first intercept test in 2019, and major defense contractors have already announced plans to develop space-based defensive anti-missile weapons. The program could shoot incoming missiles carrying nuclear weapons out of space, rendering them harmless and making it easier to defend the U.S. from a potential nuclear-first strike.
Space-based anti-nuclear missile lasers were part of former President Ronald Reagan’s original Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s. The technology of the day didn’t allow these systems to work effectively, but MDA thinks that modern computers can provide the missing components.
The Department of Defense isn’t alone in looking to militarize space. A recent report from the National Academies concluded that both Russia and China are developing space weapons capable of knocking out America’s satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war.
The critical military importance of satellites has been obscured in recent conflicts because most of them were against guerrilla foes who lacked the ability to target American space assets, states the report. America’s military relies on numerous satellites to provide precision navigation, communications, weather monitoring, ground surveillance and detection of nuclear missile launches.
All of these systems are extremely vulnerable to both Russia and China, both of which have developed capabilities to attack American space assets. The Chinese successfully targeted and destroyed one of their own satellites in orbit in 2007 and likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.
China intends to invest $2.17 billion into its space program between 2026 and 2030, about three to four times more than the $695 million it spent from 2011 to 2016. The country’s annual space budget will be comparatively less than NASA., but the U.S. space agency is spending more on programs not directly related to space exploration. The country’s space program is led by its military, which successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own in-orbit satellites in 2007.
“Despite world interest in avoiding militarization of space, potential adversaries have identified the use of space as an advantage for U.S. military forces, and are actively fielding systems to deny our use of space in a conflict,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, wrote in a white paper published in July. “Securing our right to use space is simply an extension of an age old principle to guarantee use of global commons.”
The Air Force has already vowed to invest $6.6 billion into efforts to protect America’s satellites over the next six years, and could spend upwards of $10 billion on space operations from combined public and classified budgets this year, according to The Air Force Times.
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